by Paul R. Spitzzeri
S. Boris Deutsch (1892-1978) was a modernist artist (principally painting, but also a creator of ceramics and drawings) of some renown, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. His figurative works are held in the collections of such prominent museums as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Norton Simon Museum.
Among his most prominent works are a series of murals painted in the Terminal Annex of the Los Angeles post office, an exuberant Spanish Colonial Revival structure opened in 1940 next to the newly completed Union Station. He also was director of a 35-minute experimental film called Lullaby, created in 1929.
Born to a Jewish family in Krasnagorka, Lithuania, Deutsch was largely self-taught, though he spent some time studying at academies in Riga, Latvia and in Berlin. In 1916, during the depths of the First World War, he migrated to the United States, living for a few years in Seattle. By the end of the decade, he was residing in Los Angeles, specifically in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, where many Eastern Europeans resided.
Deutsch quickly gained attention in the area, including for his portraits of film stars like Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin. His works were also exhibited locally in galleries and at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (note the order!), now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Traveling exhibitions took his work throughout the west and across the country.
It is not known how Deutsch came to the attention of Walter P. Temple. Because Deutsch was known as a painter of Jewish subjects and themes, perhaps Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, knew of the artist’s work.
In any case, when Temple donated property to the City of San Gabriel for its city hall, designed by Walker and Eisen, architects for Temple’s commercial buildings and who did the initial work on La Casa Nueva, Deutsch was hired to paint a portrait that was unveiled at the opening of the structure in 1923.
Additionally, when Temple was renovating one of the old Workman wineries into a recreation hall, he hired the artist to decorate the facility, which included a stage, a dance floor, a film projector, pool tables and ping pong tables. Temple’s son, Walter, Jr., in a 1983 oral history interview for the Homestead, remembered:
And the backdrop or the back of the stage was the replica of Mount Baldy. What Dad wanted to put on there was a replica of the La Puente Hills, looking this way from where we lived. The artist [Deutsch] says, “Well, there is too much space, too much sky.” It wasn’t tall enough. So he suggested why not Mt. Baldy. And that’s what it was.
In a prior discussion with a museum staff member just before the Homestead’s opening in 1981, Walter, Jr., who was a very talented amateur artist, recalled Deutsch’s work and a parenthetical note added that a friend “remembers that the pictures he painted for the recreation room were awful.” Obviously, Deutsch’s strikingly modern style probably didn’t sit well!
Then, on this date in 1924, a contract, drawn up by Los Angeles attorney Morris Abraham, was created that called for an extensive series of art works for La Casa Nueva, then in its second year of construction. The opening paragraphs noted that Temple was building his home, knew Deutsch for about three years with the artist having “performed artistic work” for Temple and that the latter “is desirous of having this said home in the interior decorated in an artistic manner” done by the former.
The plan was to have the artist paint the ceilings and walls, provide window treatments called “batiks,” and nine framed paintings for the five main rooms on the first floor of the home, including the entrance hall, living room, dining room, music room and library. The total payment for all the work was $11,000, which was well above the coast of an average American home.
The specifications section provided a great deal of detail about what was to be done in each room, so that, for example, the living room ceiling was to be “of a warm old rose local color introducing cold colors, such as blues, greens and purple” and a “center ornamental design of a warm pleasing blue and gold leaves” with “figures and glazed colors faintly shown” and “borders and patterns of Spanish period.”
The walls of that room were to approximate a tapestry with the color of “a soft blue, [and] touches of gold with a warm rose color.” The window treatments were to be “painted in dye colors on silk of various Spanish and modern designs.” A framed painting in tempra colors with “fantastic trees, birds, [and] animals” and titled “A Fantasy” was to be created and hung in the space along with two others, including an oil painting of California mountains and another of unspecified media titled “The Moon between Eucoliptus [sic] Trees.”
The music room was to have a center design of sun rays in gold in a “modern effect” on the ceiling with a variety of Spanish effects, including four medallions at the corners of the design. The walls were to include “a harmony of green and purple” with a Spanish design six feet wide. Over a fireplace (which was actually in the library, but there must have been a change in room types) was to be a painting called “A Dream” with “dancing figures, a castle and fantastic trees.” Two other paintings of “A Bird of Paradise” and “Dancing Nymphs” were also to be placed in the room.
These examples show the range of rather ornate and exuberant ideas conceived by Deutsch and, if they had been created, the interior of the home would have been demonstrably and dramatically different than the outcome, which was far simpler and starker. That is, there are beamed ceilings with wood or plaster carvings at the end, some of the former being very interesting and unique, but nothing like what was called for in the contract. As far as we know, the walls were not painted in colors, but kept white, draperies were rather simple and there is no indication that paintings anywhere near the number and type mentioned were hung in the rooms.
It is also not known if the plan was abandoned because of the excessive cost and/or the hiring of architect Roy Seldon Price led to differing ideas of how to handle the interior decoration. As it was, the family joke was that the architect’s invoices matched his last name, given that he made his own stunning changes to the building, including the remarkable painted plaster door surround the transformed the front entrance and the reorienting of the interior stairs that originally went up the center and branched to the side, but which were reconfigured to a wrap-around type. Price’s own style of fanciful and vivacious effects may well have negated the idea of adopting the Deutsch interior decoration plan, but it sure would have been fun to see what the latter would have wrought if completed!
The artist went on to receive further acclaim for his work in Los Angeles during the remainder of the decade, including an interesting 1929 review in the Los Angeles Times that highlighted as work depicting Jews in a way that led the writer, Arthur Millier to state that Deutsch “emerged from the obscurity of Hollenbeck [Boyle] Heights Jewry a few years ago” to become a “painter-genius.” Millier claimed that the artist was “the antithesis of everything the average laymen expects of painting” with a restricted color range of black, white, brown, yellow and dull red “and he uses the paint as a language to express his feelings about the life of his own people.”
The critic went to add, remarkably, that
an American only sees the Jew who developed and manipulates the modern financial system, the Jew who belongs to his own clubs. Of the rank and file of the racial religious community of Judah he knows nothing. It is this community Deutsch interprets with masterly skill.
This was because Deutsch was a student of the Talmud and prepared to be a rabbi in his youth and had a fundamental understanding of the deep religious traditions of Judaism. This included the “dearly-clutched fruits of faith” of the “obscure orthodox people whom he paints with a love” that included “irony and morbidity.”
With the onset of the Works Progress Administration, which hired many artists for projects in public buildings erected by the government agency, Deutsch received many commissions, though his work was not as well-known after World War II. Still, he continued to pursue his art, including printmaking and monotypes and lived to be in his mid-eighties, dying in Los Angeles in 1978.
Given his modernist and impressionistic approach to much of this work, it is somewhat surprising that he had Walter P. Temple as a client, given that La Casa Nueva was more representative of a romantic “Spanish” past. If the plan proposed in the March 1924 contract had been carried out, though, the house would certainly have taken on a far different aesthetic character and our tours might be a lot more about Deutsch and his art as well as about the Temples and their approach to California history!